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Thursday, 6 December 2012

Salem Lives On

Modern Witch Trials

We have discussed previously the rash of unsafe prosecution and conviction of adults accused of child molestation--falsely and completely unjustly, as it later turns out.  In New Zealand we had our own horror trial in Christchurch (the Christchurch Civic Creche case) where adult caregivers were accused (and one convicted) of the most bizarre and horrendous crimes against children on the basis of child testimony.  It was all a crock.  (For the expose tour d'force, see Lynley Hood's, A City Possessed: The Christchurch Civic Creche Case.  Publisher: Longacre Press, 2001.  Reviews of the book can be found, here.)

Yet at the time, and to this day, parents and others involved swear black and blue that the children were telling the truth (despite some of those children publicly recanting their testimony as they grew older).  This phenomenon was not isolated, but similar cases occurred in the United States, the UK, and in Europe.  Researchers have compared the hysteria to that on display in the witch trials of Salem in the seventeenth century.
  Funny how we used to think those folk back then were ignorant and primitive and prone to superstition.  Apparently that particular apple has stayed uncomfortably close to the tree.

Some time ago were were present during a court case where a father was accused of child molestation and the only witness was a five year old child. Some were flatly claiming that the child had to be believed because children do not lie.  It is that errant, ignorant belief which lies at much of the hysteria and subsequent injustice of these cases.

This, of course, is not to say that child molestation does not occur.  It does--sadly.  But it is to say that cases which depend solely upon the testimony of a child or children whose evidence has been coaxed out of them by "expert" adults are notoriously unsafe from the get-go.  The phenomenon has gone through a further iteration: now, as a result of the judicial abuse of accused innocently people, protocols and guidelines has been put in place for extracting more reliable evidence from infant accusers.  But that has only served to reinforce the conviction that children's testimony is reliable and that "kids don't lie". 

The Guardian recently carried a review of a new movie on the subject.  It re-works the issues and makes the same fundamental points--something which we cannot hear too often, lest our own version of the Salem Witch Trials becomes perpetuated without end. 

The Hunt disputes the innocence of infants

Thomas Vinterberg's account of small-town paedophilia panic troubles the idea that child accusers must always be believed.

Susse Wold and Annika Wedderkopp in Thomas Vinterberg's Jagten (The Hunt).
Susse Wold and Annika Wedderkopp in Thomas Vinterberg's The Hunt. Photograph: Charlotte Bruss-Christensen
We didn't need the McAlpine affair to remind us that our era sustains a witch-hunt of which the middle ages might have been proud. Since the late 1970s, successive houndings of supposed paedophiles have done little to prevent the recurrence of the phenomenon. Lord McAlpine got off lightly compared to victims of panics in Cleveland and Orkney, or the people who had their homes besieged by chanting mobs in Portsmouth, or the Newcastle nursery workers subjected to a nine-year campaign of vilification, prosecution, prison violence, mob torment and official denunciation before being cleared of any wrongdoing in 2002. The documentary Witch Hunt, produced and narrated by Sean Penn in 2008, describes a Californian frenzy that saw a carpenter spend 15 years in prison for abuses that never occurred.

The underlying phenomenon is well enough understood. Human beings seem to need to vent their collective ire on a chosen peripheral group. Our current mania is buttressed by the genuine harm perpetrated by real child abusers, but it's reinforced by another characteristic. As in the campaign against Salem's witches, the key accusers are children.

We accept that adults may lie, but in recent years, in a reaction against scandals in which children's well-founded allegations have been disregarded, we've come to resist the idea that, on occasion, children can lie as well. Child-endorsed denunciations have thus become immune from the doubt that might otherwise temper our vengefulness. In the Newcastle case, demonstrators paraded with banners saying: "we believe the kids".

When children's claims of abuse are nonetheless shown to be unfounded, we refuse to accord them blame. Overwhelmingly, we've come to insist that false allegations by children are mainly the fault of adults.
Often they have been. The Orkney accusers eventually revealed that they were bullied into testifying by their interrogators. Penn's film is an indictment of the coercion of child witnesses. As a result of such cases, it's come to be accepted that children give false accounts mainly because adults ask them leading questions: suggestible youngsters are merely trying to please their elders.

Because of this, the way juveniles are questioned has been intensively scrutinised. Elaborate protocols have been devised to ensure that children's testimony is uncontaminated by the prior judgment of adults. This has made the testimony that results seem even more irrefutable. So we're now urged as never before to accept what children say. "If a child tells you about abuse," the Kidscape website enjoins us, "believe in what you are being told." But what if the child is making it up?

With The Hunt, Dogme pioneer Thomas Vinterberg grasps this unpleasant nettle. The film's story, of a tight-knit community turning on the victim of a false allegation, has been criticised as routine. Its wronged hero is a boring saint, and the villagers act out obvious enough roles. What might have been the most interesting part of the tale, the communal healing that (almost) takes place, is simply skipped over. Instead, it's the infant accuser who takes centre-stage.

Seven-year-old Annika Wedderkopp puts in an extraordinary performance as the even younger Klara, whose murmured allegation destroys the life of a nursery-school teaching assistant. Adults push Klara into firming up her story; they exaggerate it and reject her withdrawals as attempts at repression. Nonetheless, they don't invent it. Like the Newcastle demonstrators, the school's headteacher declares: "I believe the children. They don't lie." But like Briony in Atonement, Klara is indeed lying, to avenge rejection.

A nursery school may sound an unlikely setting for such behaviour. Nonetheless, between them Wedderkopp and Vinterberg make Klara's behaviour seem entirely persuasive. It's not just her original impulse that rings true. Klara displays a complex mix of pique, sly precocity, emerging but still half-hearted conscience, passivity as an avoidance strategy, inability to challenge an adult's robust narrative, muddled memory and genuine confusion that seems altogether convincing.

Vinterberg himself seems anxious about what he's done. He says he's unhappy that some filmgoers come out of the cinema hating Klara. He's called her lie "innocent" and insists that children who participate in abuse hysteria should themselves be seen as victims. Maybe so. Still, anyone who sees this film will find it hard to entirely endorse the Kidscape view of children's allegations.

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